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Thursday, June 30, 2022

Raise a Glass for the Lady

The portrayal of women who drink has undergone a seismic change in Hindi films.

Written by Manjiri Indurkar | New Delhi |
Updated: March 11, 2018 12:00:40 am
kangana ranaut in queen Kangana Ranaut in Queen.

When Guru Dutt’s Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam (1962) was sent as India’s official entry to Oscars, it is said that the Academy wrote a letter to Dutt informing him that the film would not be chosen because portraying an alcoholic woman was against their culture. Growing up in a traditional middle-class household where everyone was a teetotaler, Meena Kumari’s poignant portrayal of an alcoholic woman is my first memory of any Indian woman drinking alcohol. I had seen Bond movies where promiscuous women who’d get into bed with Bond drank, but those weren’t the women setting examples for us. They were cursed to eternal damnation anyway.

Through the ’70s we could see Helen and Bindu, and the occasional Aruna Irani and Padma Khanna, drinking alcohol as they performed their cabaret dances, sometimes trying to seduce the hero, sometimes just for the viewing pleasure of our villains. These were the vamps, temporary distractions, women of dubious character, and alcoholism was nothing but a minor addition to a list of flaws.

Sometimes, our heroines were fallen women, too, and they drank because alcohol was the necessary accessory required to depict their fall from grace. But, then, it was the hero’s job to rescue them. Saira Bano in Purab Aur Paschim (1970) serves as a good example. Not only was she needlessly blonde, she was also into smoking and drinking. So Manoj Kumar, singing Koi jab tumhara hriday tod de, had to be her saviour. Towards the end, she is shown standing in a mandir; agarbatti smoke is all that she needs now.

Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay might have written Devdas to highlight the problems with feudal zamindari system, but all one remembers is its titular character, the forlorn hero who takes to alcohol to drown his sorrows. Sad men turning to alcohol is no surprise, it’s when the women do it that we sit up and take notice. One scene in Govind Nihalani’s Party (1984) comes to mind where a drunk Rohini Hattangadi, once a beautiful and popular actress, now ageing and battling with lost stardom and a partner who isn’t interested in her, turns to alcohol and makes a group of liberals discussing Marxist politics with wine glasses in their hands, shudder in disdain. Her pallu slipping down and exposing her cleavage as she walks around drunk is a cry of desperation from a woman trapped in the hypocrisies of upper-class life.

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A few days ago, I was watching Yash Chopra’s Kabhi Kabhie (1976). Somewhere towards the beginning, Shashi Kapoor makes drinks for everyone. He hands his wife, Rakhi, a glass of coke without asking her what she wants and goes on to say that she should start drinking. Rakhi responds with “Maine aap se bohot acchi aadatien seekhi hai (I’ve learnt a lot of good things from you, now let this be)”. So, it’s not a bad habit if a man drinks, but a bad one if a woman does. In the cinema of the ’80s and ’90s, Sridevi’s Manju from the 1989 film Chaalbaaz (1989), and Kajol’s Simran doing “Zara sa jhoom lun” in Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (1995) are the only ones that stand out. Alcohol becomes the channel through which Simran’s desires find expression — aa tujhe choom lun main. It isn’t a comment on her as a woman. Her “good” girl status is already well established. She is a young woman out in a cold barn when it is snowing. There is no fire to keep her warm. What is she to do if not turn to alcohol? However, Manju was everything Simran wasn’t. She could drink. She could abuse. She could dance freely on the streets after getting drunk, telling anyone who’ll listen, Kisi ke haath na aaegi ye ladki.

Sahib, Bibi Aur Ghulam A still from Sahib, Bibi Aur Ghulam.

In the late Nineties, there were glimpses of women belonging to the upper class occasionally shown holding glasses of champagne or wine, but nothing beyond that. When Karisma Kapoor’s Nisha wants to do tequila shots on her birthday in Dil Toh Pagal Hai (1997), she is clearly told by Shah Rukh’s Rahul “Yeh ladkiyon ke peene ki cheez nahi hai (This is not a drink for women)”. Of course, she drinks despite the snubbing, because she needs liquid courage to say what she otherwise can’t. That she loves Rahul. But alcohol becomes the reason to delegitimise her feelings. Rahul can pretend she never said anything because he believes she’s drunk. A few scenes later, we see the good Indian woman that is Madhuri Dixit’s Pooja holding a glass of champagne, but never drinking it. And that is fine because she’s at a Christian wedding, and it’s just champagne that Rahul is pouring, so she has his sanction.

Depressed women taking shelter in alcohol isn’t as much of an anomaly today, but we do have Kangana Ranaut to thank for levelling the field with her performances in films like Gangster, Simran or in the Tanu Weds Manu series. Bollywood’s relationship with its drinking women is seeing a shift. Today, women drink in all kinds of circumstances, be it Alizeh in Ae Dil Hai Mushkil (2016), or Deepika Padukone in Cocktail (2012), the spoilt modern woman who will lose her love to the sanskari girl. You also have Padukone as Naina in Ye Jawani Hai Deewani, who, with age, has become more open to drinking. Padukone is also Meera who drinks to celebrate her freedom from the obligations of a love that once was in Love Aaj Kal (2009).

There might be a seismic shift in the portrayal of women who drink in Hindi cinema, but it’s still confined to the young and the elite. The only exception to the rule is Shoojit Sircar’s Vicky Donor (2012) where Dolly Ahluwalia and Kamlesh Gill as Vicky’s mother and grandmother enjoy a few pegs of whisky every evening in order to cope with their loneliness. These are, perhaps, the only two women from a typical middle-class household who are shown to enjoy their drinks — women who have devoted their lives to their families and have chosen to suffer in silence because they have been made to believe that there is greatness in being the infallible woman. It is time we said goodbye to them. Let them raise their glasses once in a while; they deserve to escape their realities as much as we do.

Manjiri Indurkar is one of the founder-editors of the web magazine Antiserious.

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